Ligeti

What does space sound like?

What does the vast expanse between the burning stars sound like? What do the dark empty spaces around and between planets sound like? What does the space between my computer and yours sound like? What does the distance between me and the library on my wall sound like, what does the cliff gap between my window and the high-rise library of people across the street sound like? What does the space between an atom’s nucleus and its electrons, proportionally so much greater than the gap between sun and planets, sound like? The great unknown? The emptiness that is full of dark matter and potential matter? What do the spaces between thoughts sound like? The spaces between minds?

NASA has recorded electromagnetic pulsations in space and converted them to sound. Hear them at canyouactually.com/nasa-recorded-sound-in-space-and-its-absolutely-chilling/ if you wish; they are reminiscent of the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen (such as Kontakte), and not altogether coincidentally.

But to me, space sounds more like Ligeti.

Ligeti György Sándor. The closest you can come to saying that with English sounds is “Liggety Jrrj Shahndor.” Hungarians put the family name first. Ligeti was a Hungarian Jew born in Romania who moved to Hungary and later Austria and Germany.

Ligeti was one of the great modern composers. Even his name is musical. It is three canonical syllables, licking and bouncing tip-back-tip of the tongue, the vowels all up and front. It sounds like legato and ligature, and it looks almost like light. And no one seems to know what it means. Like life and music, it is there and we use it anyway.

Ligeti will remind us of space because his music was used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and some other films. It is music that I learned, in my youth, not to listen to when I was alone by myself at night in our large house surrounded by dark woods at the foot of a mountain. The foreboding, the voices so discordant and confused and full of empty and howling like the wind through the trees, building and swirling. The famous Kyrie that we hear when the monolith is first revealed on the moon. Kubrick’s movie, in so many scenes, keeps space entirely silent, amazingly so. But here, no.

But this is not why Ligeti’s music is the sound of space. Stanley Kubrick doesn’t get to decide everything for everyone. Listen to Lux Aeterna, “eternal light”:

And listen to the famous Kyrie:

Watch them, watch them sing, watch. They stand there, scores out, reading, counting, hitting every note.

The words are simple: kyrie eleison, christe eleison, kyrie eleison, ‘Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy’. It is from a requiem mass, the mass for the dead, those whose voices have stopped generating and are now forever dissipating into space. Can you hear that, the words, the supplications, the mercy, can you make it out from all of those voices?

I have seen the score to that Kyrie. Every note is written on it. Each voice has a line. Each voice has its own notes, its own bar divisions and rhythms. Every one of them has its plan and its clear line and purpose and statement. Every one of them has been rehearsed, has rehearsed carefully, sedulously, has burned the midnight oil to prepare for this. We hear them all together and we simply hear an enormous texture. We hear an ebb and flow and a hive of noise. We hear so many individuals and intervals that what we hear is not them but the relation between them, the attempt to reach and meet and join, the negotiations and failed connections. The space between them. The concert of solipsisms. Like a hundred metronomes, each in its own tempo, all making individual sense, together making… noise.

Space is voices. Voices express minds, minds that experience. Space is the experience of space, is the experience of reaching and not touching. It is full of the dark matter of the mind, the belief in distance and separation. Space is the only way that everything is not just one thing. And yet we are tied across the gaps, legato, with ligatures. We are all celestial bodies, burning in our dark suspension, and the reaching out is light.

4 responses to “Ligeti

  1. This is an excellent post James! I have been fascinated by sounds of space for more than a decade now. Just a week ago I did a small post on the same in my blog :
    http://blabberwockying.blogspot.in/2014/10/sounds-of-space-and-voice-of-earth.html

    Interesting enough, I did write a letter or two in 2008-09 to thank and share my experience to Dr. Paul Francis, an Australian Astrophysicist who had done similar work a long time ago.

    http://blabberwockying.blogspot.in/2011/08/letter-to-astrophysicist.html

    I was mesmerized by the sounds used in 2001:A Space Odyssey, but did not know much about Legeti, up until reading your article. This is a very enjoyable article. Those videos are astounding. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article James. Have a very nice day🙂

  2. And this last bit is so sublime and philosophically profound that I don’t have enough words to appreciate it :

    “Space is voices. Voices express minds, minds that experience. Space is the experience of space, is the experience of reaching and not touching. It is full of the dark matter of the mind, the belief in distance and separation. Space is the only way that everything is not just one thing. And yet we are tied across the gaps, legato, with ligatures. We are all celestial bodies, burning in our dark suspension, and the reaching out is light.”

    Very subtle. Very profound. Thanks James!

  3. Pingback: odyssey | Sesquiotica

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